Coloured Hearing [Flemming Jorgensen at the Slide Room Gallery]

[This essay was commissioned for Flemming Jorgensen’s exhibition, “Lego in Art” at the Slide Room Gallery, in the spring of 2008. For me, it afforded a wonderful opportunity to visit the artist in his home studio and observe firsthand how his generosity of spirit (as well as his capacity for concentration in solitude) contricuted to his working environment.] 

 

“Seurat’s dots may be seen as a kind of collage […]

It approaches the impersonal but remains in its frankness a personal touch.

[His] hand has what all virtuosity claims: certitude, rightness with least effort.

– Meyer Schapiro, “Georges Seurat”, Modern Art

 

I hide behind simple things that you may find me;

If you don’t find me, you’ll find the things

            – Yannis Ritsos, “The Meaning of Simplicity”

 

Gazing at a shelf of Flemming Jorgensen’s sculptures, I am confronted by a row black lacquer blocks, abbreviated variables of adumbrated gloss: “Saki Cups” he remarks, turning one sideways to offer me the lip. “Of course!”…Which is what I spend most of my time thinking as we walk through his living space and studio. Confronted is the correct word for the surprise, though wrongheaded: welcomed. One meets the works frontally, as the open pores of a section of found driftwood read as the grain of the sea; or the placid span of silkscreened light in a print impressed by ancient Greece. Regardless of their having been put together from salvaged parts and places, a piece’s read is immediate and consonant.

Streaming through all of the compartments of the artist’s home are Lego bricks. They de-materialize the more obdurate time-built or hand-worn objects in which they are embedded. Their oscillating colours suggest code, except that they are at once both secretive and social, constructive and talkative, trickling amidst crevices and pigmented planes they pass along and augment, seeming both to extract and ingratiate the colours of their terrain. At most reductive they become chisel heads in a stele, buttons on a keypad, laconically instructive or hermetically remote: but never without the possibility of change; in this way they recall brushstrokes that after years of hardness still look game for the touch.

Another word for drawing is articulation: the Lego really draws the surface it takes part in, or in another use of the word, enables it to speak (or another: becomes its spine). But why use coloured plastic toys to draw lines?

The roots of Lego are in architectonic building blocks, like the ones Friedrich Froebel developed as a pioneering tool of early childhood education. They were key in a process of bestowing the learning tool as ‘gift’: that the tool is simply and directly goal-oriented, but the gift open to childish whim -entirely free- was crucial. As neutral units, they carried the trace of no singular plan, but were at all times available to chance, fancy, improvisation…Yet the ghost of past projects lent them an air of purposeful use, an elementary rightness that granted assuredness to play.

Of course a staple debate of kids everywhere is the relative merit of preserving a Lego kit built according to instruction or recycling; disseminating the dedicated yet polymorphous bits into boxes, shelves, corners and carpet. When it remerges in the vacuum bag, Lego stands out brightly amidst the domestic dirt, integers in the dust, never fully partaking in rubbish’s remainder but returned to circulation to become something else…    

These notions bring to mind a remark by George Braque, co-parent of Cubism, on the role that collage played in his cognitive process: “The painter who wished to make a circle would only draw a curve. Its appearance might satisfy him, but he would doubt it. The compass would give him certitude. The pasted papers in my drawings also gave me a certitude.”

Like Braque, Jorgensen trained as a decorative artisan before becoming a painter, and the desire for technical finesse, an evident pleasure in the visible and at-hand, underscores his most expansive endeavours. Braque once said that elements of collage such as false wood-graining were, “simple facts, […] created by the mind”, but also “one of the justifications for a new form in space.” The incipient linguistics of a Lego construction is also a simple fact, and our participation in them – as toy and tool, plastic and lyric- succeed because of our involvement in the project of building even as we look.

Ingrained in all of these stories are nineteenth century utopian hopes for the well-being of mind and spirit as nurtured in the formative environment…from the English Arts and Crafts movement to Frank Lloyd Wright (famously a Froebel fan), to the complex colour theory of the Weimar Bauhaus and the mystical, mathematical Dutch design movement De Stijl, a Romantic faith in the ability of childlike creativity to transcend the quotidian has kept our colours clean. A blue-chip in utopia’s stock exchange, coloured blocks have proven surprisingly stable: The paintings of De Stijl disciple Piet Mondrian will forever look back at a modernity that hasn’t quite happened; Jorgensen’s Lego rejuvenates the discreet Danish and weathered West Coast of his pigments and patinas, rendering plinths and frames comical, mock-heroic…

Jorgensen confesses he came of age too early to experience Lego as a boy, but the play of these colours has reinvested his work with youthful energy and a sense of forward momentum. Of a recent show of the Lego works in Brazil, Jorgensen comments,” The kids all said, ‘No way this guy is seventy years old!” The struggle to relate form and colour is, as Mondrian demonstrated over the course of a lifetime, at the heart of painting: not a matter of stabilizing a framework of opposing forces, but a constantly confusion of each in relation to the other. It is an act of faith but also a serious pleasure.

Bauhausian Wassily Kandinsky famously wrote about colour as an affirmative force, possessed of an extra-visual resonance: Kandinsky ‘heard’ a hiss of colour emerge from his childhood paintbox, as surely as Beethoven ‘saw’ D major as orange and B minor as black. Synaesthesia, or “coloured hearing”, is one way of interpreting his experience, supposing the sensibility to be sensitivity, though neurologists debate the veracity of these artistic claims. What mattered most surely was moment of sublime interference, in which sensations were undifferentiated as to source or supply, so that everything achieved its solidity for once as character alone.  

 

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